Neocons' stunning Iraq revisionism: Why they're still divorced from reality

Bill Kristol and others are beating the war drum anew. Have they learned nothing from the last decade of conflict?

Published June 20, 2014 3:31PM (EDT)

Bill Kristol                      (CBS News)
Bill Kristol (CBS News)

This piece originally appeared on

In a column titled “Bush’s toxic legacy in Iraq,” terrorism expert Peter Bergen writes about the origins of ISIS, “the brutal insurgent/terrorist group formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq.”

Bergen notes that, “One of George W. Bush’s most toxic legacies is the introduction of al Qaeda into Iraq, which is the ISIS mother ship. If this wasn’t so tragic it would be supremely ironic, because before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, top Bush officials were insisting that there was an al Qaeda-Iraq axis of evil. Their claims that Saddam Hussein’s men were training members of al Qaeda how to make weapons of mass destruction seemed to be one of the most compelling rationales for the impending war.”

There was no al-Qaida-Iraq connection until the war; our invasion made it so. We have known this for nearly a decade, well before the murderous ISIS even appeared. In a September 2006 New York Times article headlined “Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Worsens Terrorism Threat,” reporter Mark Mazetti informed readers of a classified National Intelligence Estimate representing the consensus view of the 16 disparate spy services inside government. Titled “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States,’’ the analysis cited the Iraq War as a reason for the diffusion of jihad ideology: “The Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse,’ said one American intelligence official.”

The Bush administration fought to quash its conclusions during the two years that the report was in the works. Mazetti reported, “Previous drafts described actions by the United States government that were determined to have stoked the jihad movement, like the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.” Apparently, these were dropped from the final document, though the reference to jihadists using their training for the purpose of “exacerbating domestic conflicts or fomenting radical ideologies,” as in, say, Syria, remained.

At the beginning of 2005, Mazetti notes, another official U.S. government body, the National Intelligence Council, “released a study concluding that Iraq had become the primary training ground for the next generation of terrorists, and that veterans of the Iraq war might ultimately overtake Al Qaeda’s current leadership in the constellation of the global jihad leadership.”

On the one hand, it is impressive how well our intelligence agencies were able to predict the likely outcome of the Bush administration’s foolhardy obsession with invading Iraq. On the other, it is beyond depressing how little these assessments have come to matter in the discussion and debate over U.S. foreign policy.

As we know, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the other architects of the war did everything possible to intimidate and, when necessary, discredit those in the intelligence agencies who warned of the predictable consequences of war. Cheney and his deputies made repeated trips to Langley to challenge professional intelligence work and used pliant members of the media — including Robert Novak of the Washington Post and Judith Miller of the New York Times, among many, many others — to undermine the integrity of people like Joseph P. Wilson and Valerie Plame, lest the truth about the administration’s lies come out. Rather incredibly, they even went so far as to ignore the incredibly detailed planning documents, created over a period of a year at a cost of $5 million by the State Department, that had a chance of providing Iraq with a stable postwar environment. Instead, they insisted on creating an occupation that generated nothing but chaos, mass murder and the terrorist victories of today.

One of the many horrific results was the decision to support Nouri al-Maliki as a potential leader of the nation. Maliki’s sectarian attacks on Sunni Muslims on behalf of his Shiite allies are the immediate cause of the current murderous situation. And his placement in that job, as Fareed Zakaria aptly notes, “was the product of a series of momentous decisions made by the Bush administration. Having invaded Iraq with a small force — what the expert Tom Ricks called ‘the worst war plan in American history’ — the administration needed to find local allies.”

One could go on and on (and on and on and on) about the awful judgment — the arrogance, the corruption, the ideological obsession and the purposeful ignorance — by the Bush administration that led to the current catastrophe. As Ezra Klein recently noted, “All this cost us trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives.” And this is to say nothing of the destruction of our civil liberties and poisoning of our political discourse at home and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died, the millions of refugees created, the hatred inspired in the world toward the United States.

But to focus exclusively on the administration begs an obvious question. How did they get away with it? Where were the watchdogs of the press?

Much has been written on this topic. No one denies that the truth was available at the time. Not all of it, of course, but enough to know that certain catastrophe lay down the road the administration chose to travel at 100 miles per hour. Top journalists, like those who ran the Times and the Washington Post, chose to ignore the reporting they read in their own papers.

As the Post itself later reported, its veteran intelligence reporter Walter Pincus authored a compelling story that undermined the Bush administration’s claim to have proof that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction. It only made the paper at all because Bob Woodward, who was researching a book, talked his editors into it. And even then, it ran on Page A17, where it was immediately forgotten.

As former Post Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks later explained, “Administration assertions were on the front page. Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: ‘Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?” The New York Times ran similarly regretful stories and its editors noted to its readers that the paper had been “perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.” (Bill Moyers’ documentary special “Buying the War: How Big Media Failed Us" tells the story, and in conjunction with that Moyers report, you can find an Interactive Timeline as well as post-March 2003 coverage of Iraq.)

Many in the mainstream media came clean, relatively speaking, about the cause of their mistakes when it turned out that they had been conduits for the Bush administration lies that led to catastrophe. But what they haven’t done, apparently, is change their ways.

As my “Altercation” colleague Reed Richardson notes, the very same people who sold us the war are today trying to resell us the same damaged goods: “On MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ this past Monday, there was Paul Bremer, the man who summarily disbanded the Iraqi Army in 2003 in one of the biggest strategic blunders of the war, happily holding court and advocating for ‘boots on the ground.’” Not to be outdone, Politico had the temerity to quote Doug Feith blithely lecturing Obama about how to execute foreign policy. Don’t forget the throwback stylings of torture apologist Marc Thiessen either, who was writing speeches for Rumsfeld during the run-up to the Iraq War.  On Monday, he, too, weighed in with an Op-Ed in the Washington Post unironically titled “Obama’s Iraq Disaster.”

Among the most egregious examples of this tendency has been rehabilitation of neoconservative thinker Robert Kagan and his frequent writing partner, the pundit and policy entrepreneur William Kristol. Back in April 2002, the two argued that “the road that leads to real security and peace” is “the road that runs through Baghdad.” In an article titled “What to Do About Iraq,” they added that not only was it silly to believe that “American ground forces in significant number are likely to be required for success in Iraq” but also that they found it “almost impossible to imagine any outcome for the world both plausible and worse than the disease of Saddam with weapons of mass destruction. A fractured Iraq? An unsettled Kurdish situation? A difficult transition in Baghdad? These may be problems, but they are far preferable to leaving Saddam in power with his nukes, VX, and anthrax.”

Both men made this argument over and over, and especially in Kristol’s case, often in McCarthyite terms designed to cast aspersions on the motives and patriotism of their opponents and those in the media. For his spectacular wrongness Kristol has been punished by being given columns in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Time magazine, not to mention a regular slot on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” (These appointments came in addition to a $250,000 award from the right-wing Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, an occasion that inspired this collection of a just a few of his greatest hits.)

Recently, Kristol could be heard on ABC’s idiotically named “Powerhouse Roundtable” explaining that the problem in Iraq today was caused not by the lousy decisions for which he argued so vociferously but “by our ridiculous and total withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.” (Surprise, surprise, he did not mention that our 2011 withdrawal from Iraq was the product of the 2008 “Status of Forces” agreement negotiated by none other than President George W. Bush.)

Similarly, last month, Kagan was given 12,700 words for a cover essay in the (still hawkish) New Republic titled “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” which he used to make many of the same sorts of unsupported assertions that underlay his original misguided advice. As a result, he found himself not only celebrated in a profile in the New York Times that all but glossed over his past record, but also called in for consultations by the current president of the United States.

One often reads analyses these days that grant the no longer ignorable fact that American conservatives, especially those in control of the Republican Party, have become so obsessed by right-wing ideology and beholden to corporate cash that they have entirely lost touch both with reality and with the views of most Americans. As the famed Brookings Institution analyst Thomas Mann recently wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “Republicans have become a radical insurgency — ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of their political opposition.”

This tendency was the focus of the coverage of the shocking defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his local primary by a man with no political experience and little money, who attributed his victory to “God act[ing] through people on my behalf,” and warns that unless more Americans heed the lessons of Jesus — as he interprets them — a new Hitler could rise again “quite easily.” These right-wing extremists have repeatedly demonstrated their contempt for the views of most Americans whether it be on economic issues, environmental issues, issues of personal, religious and sexual freedom or immigration, to name just a few, and Americans are moving away from them as a result.

This is no less true, it turns out, with regard to the proposed adventurism in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East by those who sold us the first false bill of goods back in 2003. A strong majority of Americans now agree that removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq was not worth the trillions of dollars and lives lost. Barely one in six want to go back in. There is also strong opposition to military intervention in neighboring Syria. And yet not only do the same armchair warriors continue in their demands for more blood and treasure to be sacrificed on the altar of their ideological obsession with no regard whatever for Americans’ desire to do the exact opposite, they remain revered by the same mainstream media that allowed them to get away with it the first time.

The conservative foreign policy establishment, it needs to be said, is no less out of touch with reality — and democracy — than the Tea Party fanatics who control the Republican domestic agenda (and are fueled by the cash of the Koch brothers and other billionaires who stand to profit from their victories). That so many in the media pretend otherwise, after all this time, all this death and all this money wasted, demonstrates not only contempt for their audience but utter disdain for knowledge itself.

By Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman last piece for Salon was "Confessions of a box-set sucker."

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Bill Kristol Iraq Paul Wolfowitz Revisionism